TV Licenses: How can we justify criminalising people for living in poverty?

Author: Jasmine Joséphine Sakura-Rose

I was named after the TV repair man

It’s a strange start, I know. A strange start to this article, in many ways a strange start to my life

But for all that things may seem curious on the surface, if not downright farcical, there’s often meaning hidden beyond simple surfaces

I was born in 1975 and grew up in a tiny hamlet in the Beacons. I also grew up in poverty. Nearly everybody in the hamlet did. Everybody pitched together to try an scrape through, everybody shared what they could – and that included knowledge and more than a few tricks

I grew up in a house that had a living room that contained two televisions. One colour, and one black and white stacked on top. The speakers on the colour set were shot, so we relied on the speakers from the black and white set to make do. Both were hand-me-downs – things no longer wanted because they’d been replaced or, as it happens, merely found on the side of the road

When you have next to nothing you make do. It’s just how it is

But there was one oddity. A blanket had been placed over the top of the colour television. As a child I was told that if anyone were to ever knock on the front door (nobody in the hamlet ever bothered with front doors as you always let yourself in through the back, so anybody who used the front door was always going to be a stranger) I was to pull the blanket down and never say anything at all about the colour television. In the eyes of the outside world our house, like almost all houses in the hamlet, only had a black and white TV

And the reason for that was simple. We couldn’t afford the licence for a colour TV. We could barely afford the licence for the black and white TV and my parents only paid that to keep the inspectors away. From the earliest age I was taught to fear the knock on the door, that sense that because we had a TV we could be prosecuted—become criminals—because we didn’t have quite enough money to pay to watch it

Nevermind that the only times we saw eggs were if our or the neighbours’ hens were laying. Nevermind that most meals consisted of tinned meats that were sliced so thin you could see the light through them. No matter what we had to pay the minimum for that black and white licence because if we didn’t...

Well, that’s the thing. Don’t pay and get caught? Criminal conviction and a fine

Sounds so simple doesn’t it? Pay off the fine, laugh off the conviction on your record down the pub with your mates

And sure, that’s a reality for those who are well off enough so they don’t have to worry about such a “minor” inconvenience to their lives

But it’s different when you live in poverty. There’s not enough money to go around to begin with. Add a fine on top of that and things get even worse. Add in a criminal conviction, the following loss of your job, and a struggle to get employment at all (and forget about being paid even the pittance you were getting before), and that fine and conviction isn’t minor at all

I grew up with the fear and guilt of poverty. Or, to be more precise, the fear and guilt that we’d be caught doing something that shouldn’t have been a crime in the first place

It can be hard to explain poverty to those who haven’t truly experienced it, or to those who’ve only touched upon it before being lucky enough to escape. Poverty carries with it a weight and stigma that becomes impossible to escape after a while. We live in a society that still damns those who don’t have enough to get through the day – regardless of the reasons why somebody might not have enough money to get by

I wonder how many people have ever been sat on a bus and watched a young mother get on with a pushchair? Watched her ask for tickets, look in her purse, and then look up and then around with that lost expression of somebody who realises that they don’t have enough money on them to get where they need to go?

I have. Most people who rely on the bus service where I live have witnessed this. And we all do what we always do. We all look shamefacedly at each other as we look through our pockets and purses to see if we’ve got enough money on us to make up the difference. And it’s shameful because each and every one of us can see and feel the humiliation of the young mother who’s now utterly reliant on the kindness of chance met strangers on a bus

Poverty is hideous. It degrades and humiliates. Strips us of respect, teaches us that we aren’t worth respect -

- and then comes that demand that once again we must pay for a TV licence on pain of being dragged through the courts on a criminal charge if we don’t.

We don’t have enough money to travel on the bus but sure, we can suddenly stump up a lump sum that utterly fails to take into account any ability to pay it, worsening poverty and best, and criminalising at worst

There are discussions to be had about the necessity of the TV licence. There are serious questions that have to be asked of—and answered by—the BBC about whether the TV licence can be justified to keep it going

But there is one question above all the others that must be faced first

How can we justify criminalising people for living in poverty?

It takes only a single step back—a moment of empathy—to realise that the current legal system that criminalises those who can’t afford the TV licence is a system that is grotesque, and echoes the worst excesses of the bygone Victorian attitude that it’s right that the poor should suffer for they brought it on themselves for being poor

There are discussions to be had about whether we should still have a licence fee, but before those discussions there’s a much bigger and more important one to be had

Why do we as a party still back the idea that non-payment of the TV licence fee should be a criminal matter?

The reality is that non-payment is a matter that can, and should be, easily handled through the civil court system and even then that should only be as a last resort. In so many other areas of life we recognise that poverty can create huge difficulties. We have systems and fallbacks in place to allow people both the space and grace to deal with the vast problems poverty has brought them and there’s no reason that such understanding cannot be extended to those who struggle to or cannot afford the TV licence fee

Continuing to support the criminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence is to paint oneself as the worst caricature of a Victorian politician proclaiming that the poor deserve their comeuppance because if they didn’t then they wouldn’t be poor

We are liberals

We are here to help lift people up, not hold them back

We are here to understand and accept the circumstances that people can find themselves in, not stigmatise them further for it

We are here to promote the values of liberalism, not promote the worst indulgences of cruelty

Reforming the law around non-payment of the TV Licence to make it a civil matter is a basic and solid liberal platform, and hardly one that should be considered radical

And yet, in 2020, here I am writing this and doing so as if this was some kind of radical idea or argument

For me it isn’t

I remember what it was like to grow up with the sigma and the fear of not just poverty, but of being “caught whilst being impoverished”

I live in a community where poverty is common but rarely talked about or acknowledged because of the stigma surrounding it

I know all too well just how little it takes to not just trap a person in poverty but to also make things considerably worse for them by dragging them unnecessarily through the criminal justice system

But I also know just how little effort it takes to change that. It doesn’t take much to begin to address the inequities that face those who live in poverty

All it really takes is a willingness to listen; a willingness to learn; and the courage to do something about it